Pegasus scandal involves over 10 countries and targets thousands via smartphones

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has expressed ‘great concern; over reports that sophisticated spy software was used worldwide against journalists and politicians, most notably in the EU n Hungary.

“If this is the case, it is totally unacceptable and a violation of all the values and rules we have in the EU regarding media freedom,” she said at a press conference on July 19 in Prague, adding “Media freedom is a fundamental principle of the EU.”

An international research network of more than 18 media led by the French non-profit organization Forbidden Stories has uncovered a worldwide network of wiretaps targeting politicians, journalists and lawyers. According to the report, those who were victims of the hack were located in more than 10 countries, including – Hungary, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Mexico and India. They were spied on with the help of the Pegasus spyware that was designed by the Israeli company, NSO Group.

The spying was done via smartphones, whose vulnerabilities made it possible to listen in on telephone calls, as well as through SMS and chat messages. The most prominent victim in the EU was French President Emmanuel Macron, who was intercepted by Morocco’s secret service via at least one of his official mobile phones. This has already caused a veritable crisis in bilateral relations. Furthermore, the government of Saudi Arabia is believed to have wiretapped the entourage of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in Istanbul in 2018, both before and after the murder. In India, according to the British newspaper The Guardian, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rival Rahul Gandhi was also placed under Pegasus’ surveillance. 

In Hungary, opposition politicians, as well as journalists, were monitored with the NSO spyware by Viktor Orban’s increasingly authoritarian government. Government officials, including Justice Minister Judith Varga, immediately denied this, but the last remaining media outlet that is critical of Orban’s government published data that seems to show that state-sponsored eavesdropping of Orban’s opponents did occur.

The research, which was published simultaneously on July 19 by France’s Le Monde, the Guardian in the UK and Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung,  is based on data leaked to Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International. It is a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers that had been selected since 2016 as possible targets for state surveillance. According to the Guardian, more than 180 journalists around the world have been monitored using the software, including reporters in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, India, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Rwanda, Morocco and Hungary.

In response to the investigation, NSO Group claimed that it only sells its software to state institutions that have been vetted beforehand and is designed to be used against terrorists and known criminals.

According to the Guardian’s report, the software can be found in more than 50 countries. In the European Union, Spain and the Netherlands are among NSO’s customers. Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that NSO has also pitched its product to Germany’s intelligence services, but has not been successful with a sale. Nevertheless, the German Journalists’ Association has, since the spyware story broke, demanded information from “the German secret services on whether the Pegasus spyware was used against German journalists”.

In Hungary, the leaked data included the phone numbers of people who appear to be targets of legitimate national security or criminal investigations. However, the records also include the numbers of at least 10 lawyers, an opposition politician, and at least five journalists.

The phones of two Hungarian journalists were successfully infected with the spyware, including Szabolcs Panyi, a well-known reporter with a wide range of sources in diplomatic and national security circles. On April 3, 2019, Panyi sent a request for a comment to several government departments in relation to a story he was working on about a Russian bank that was relocating to Budapest, despite concerns that it could be a front for Russian intelligence. One day later, Panyi’s phone was infected with Pegasus.

Forensic analysis of his device by Amnesty International stated conclusively that it had been repeatedly compromised by Pegasus during a seven-month period in 2019, with the infection often coming soon after requests for comments made by Panyi to Hungarian government officials.

Information released to the Hungarian outlet 168 Ora, under a freedom of information request, showed the country’s justice minister, Judit Varga, approved 1,285 surveillance requests in 2020, which includes all forms of surveillance, not just Pegasus.

In an earlier interview with Le Monde, Varga said it was a “provocation” to ask whether she would authorize the surveillance of a journalist. She said, however, “there are so many dangers to the state everywhere”, but the justice ministry did not respond to detailed allegations about Hungary’s use of Pegasus.

Since Orban became prime minister in 2010, Hungary has fallen from 23rd to 92nd in the World Press Freedom Index. Earlier this month, Reporters Without Borders put Orban on its Enemies of Press Freedom list, the first time an EU leader has been included.

For its part, NSO stated that it does not have access to the data of its customers’ targets. Through its lawyers, NSO said the consortium had made “incorrect assumptions” about which clients use the company’s technology. It said the 50,000 number was “exaggerated” and that the list could not be a list of numbers “targeted by governments using Pegasus”.

The company plans to sue the investigative journalists’ project because of its revelations. This sort of move would be another example of a SLAPP (Strategic lawsuit against public participation) – a new method to silence investigative reporting through defamation cases connected with high sums asked for compensation. 

In response, the European Commission announced that this year it would present a new regulation against the widespread use of SLAPP-cases against reporters and media owners.

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